Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky Revelation

Sonata in D, Op.10/3
Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
18 Characteristic Pieces, Op.72

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

By accident or design, Mikhail Pletnev offered the same two Beethoven sonatas that Maurizio Pollini had played back in March in the International Piano Series. There was much to admire in Pletnev’s touch and restrained dynamics. Yet, typically, his quixotic manner did little for Beethoven’s line – his deviations, while individual, tended to draw attention more to Pletnev’s whimsy than to the unequivocal nature of the music.

Although in the first movement of the D major Sonata Pletnev was altogether more poised than Pollini had been – a more relaxed tempo helped – there were still things less ‘clean’ than ideal with tiny changes of pace and unwarranted punctuation being distracting. Pletnev caught the breadth of the following Largo e mesto but its emotions were embalmed; and the realms of fantasy Pletnev went into come the finale, after a more successful Minuet, subdivided further invention that is already capricious. Pletnev went straight into the Pathétique, his penchant for daydream paying dividends in the first movement, which enjoyed a sense of narrative. The famous slow movement though was injected with saccharine and interfered with; this Chopinesque approach proved foreign to the music. For most of the time, Beethoven’s direct, gruff and humane persona failed to win through.

However, the same Pletnev was ideal for Tchaikovsky, 18 Pieces written or collated in the last year of his life. This was a wonderful 70 minutes or so, music of rich personality, charm and soul, which Pletnev addressed with total respect and illuminated almost beyond itself to sustain interest and raise its profile considerably. Each piece carries a dedication, and within each is more than a touch of Tchaikovsky’s genius – a ‘characteristic’ turn of phrase, or modulation, and an expressive charge perhaps unexpected given the seeming simplicity of the ‘stock’ titles. From the engagingly tripping opening Impromptu to the Cossack dance that is the final piece, Pletnev persuaded one to listen intently and revel in the beauty and brilliance of these pieces. Given the lack of appreciation for Tchaikovsky’s piano music, that a musician of Pletnev’s stature takes it seriously is significant. That he was able to present eighteen pieces straight through, and hold the attention, is a very particular type of alchemy – such unification and imagination constitutes an act of uncommon devotion.

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